The experiences of Pentecostal and Charismatic communities in England following the coronavirus outbreak. Compiled by Bishop Joe Aldred, Principal Officer for Pentecostal and Charismatic Relations at Churches Together in England (CTE).
The CTE Pentecostal and Charismatic Forum comprises representatives from the 23 (of 50) CTE Member Churches that self-identify as ‘Charismatic’ or ‘Pentecostal’. The Forum meets twice per year, in May and November, for prayer, fellowship, information-sharing and networking. Forum members constitute various ecclesial and ethno-cultural typologies, including: classical-Pentecostals, neo-Pentecostals and Charismatics; African-majority, Caribbean-majority, and European-majority memberships. These organisations vary in size from large to medium and small, with wide age and demographic spread, as well as diverse class, professional and technological realities.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has infected and killed tens of thousands in the UK and many more world-wide, with the UK government’s response including lockdown measures which have severely restricted people’s movements since mid-March 2020. The large number of infections and deaths, as well as the closure of places of worship, has significantly affected these Pentecostal and Charismatic church communities, along with others.
To understand more about how COVID-19 is being experienced in Charismatic and Pentecostal communities in England, I have spoken with a representative of each organisation, and produced the following summary of their responses and perspectives.
Three main areas were discussed:
1. COVID-19 in terms of challenges, opportunities, and expected future impact.
2. Financial impact of COVID-19.
3. The effects of conspiracy and apocalyptic theories linking COVID-19 to 5G technology, and a vaccine to the mark of the beast.
1. COVID-19 in terms of challenges, opportunities, and expected future impact
Lockdown: Lockdown came as something of a shock to some. One respondent describes it as “hitting them below the belt”, leaving them confused and worried about the future of their ministries. Another views total lockdown as too strict. A majority have taken the development in their strides and adopted new ways of operating.
Government advice and information: Generally, churches are compliant with government regulations and advice, but are challenged by what is latest best advice concerning church buildings opening, funerals, weddings, etc.
Deaths: Almost all churches experienced infections and deaths among their national constituencies. But some suffered significantly, with multiple and sometimes consecutive deaths among leaders and parishioners. COVID-19 hit us hard, shook us. Some churches have not experienced any COVID-19-related deaths so far. Inner city locations seem to be worst hit. These multiple deaths in a short space of time are having high impact upon the religious and wider community. It is reported in one case that they lost someone every week; and in another, one person lost six family members to COVID-19.
Grief: The inability to be with the dying and the bereaved is posing a major challenge for families and ministers. Except for immediate family (for those who have them), grieving has become privatised, locked up, unshared and limitedly by remote contact. Churches and families are unable to grieve properly, with customs – such as not allowing families to grieve alone – having to be broken. This may well be storing up psychological trauma post COVID-19 lockdown. Loneliness is also a problem; telephone calls can’t suffice. With pastoral and spiritual support not possible in the same way under lock down, mental health issues will resurface. Much of this support will need to be given face-to-face.
Pastoral care challenges: Inability to visit the sick (whether parishioners, spouses, families, or friends) has caused great levels of distress. Some have died without direct contact with loved ones or a minister, in some cases after weeks in hospital. There are reports of unhappy circumstances, for example an individual being admitted to hospital for a non-COVID-19 ailment, yet being put on COVID-19 ward, or told they are suspected of having COVID-19 without being tested. There is a story of a wife not allowed to see her husband, who called her every day to “come take me away from this place”. The day he didn’t call, she received a call from the hospital to say he had died. There are reports that some people are afraid to go to hospital due to adverse reports of COVID-19 related deaths. Some are resorting to looking after loved ones in their own homes.
Pastoral care practices: Communicating with church members more frequently is essential, ensuring old and young are tracked and cared for, including vulnerable families and homes. Pastoral care necessitates better organisation due to lockdown, being more targeted and seeking to evenly distribute care resources.
Funerals: The severe restriction on how many can attend funerals (from as little as two people to as many as 11), and the inability to hold them in traditional ways is causing much grief. Some churches are helpfully live streaming from the cemetery so that family and friends can watch, later posting video clips online. Delayed bereavement and grief are and will be a challenge for the future.
Older people: A worry for older members who are facing total lockdown and struggle with the switch from face-to-face to online activities. Some were a little stuck initially, but with help from church family, children, grandchildren and community initiatives, many are coping. Generally, older people have difficulty with technologies like Zoom, and some do not have computers. Utilising the telephone for single use and conferencing has helped some who are not IT literate.
Confidence shaken: People’s confidence in established health and social care systems is being shaken, and at times shattered. Some bad experiences are undermining confidence, such as one ill person who was called by their GP practice, asking about resuscitation should anything happen, which sent the person’s anxiety skyrocketing.
Different experiences: It is important to note the varying experiences of sickness, deaths, funerals, food shortages, etc., with some church communities being badly hit by COVID-19, whilst others scarcely face anything of note, mostly seeing it on TV.
Front line: Some who are frontline workers in the NHS and Social Care are also frontline workers in the church, putting them in double jeopardy.
BAME over-representation: There is significant concern about BAME infections and deaths from or linked to COVID-19 being at a significantly higher rate than those from others ethnic backgrounds. With existing BAME over-representation in poor health outcomes, there is worry that people with underlying issues have fared badly in contracting and dying from COVID-19. People are worried about belonging to a ‘vulnerable group’.
Poor health: Some report that poor health is such an issue for their parishioners, that there are only a few without underlying health concerns; including diabetes, respiratory problems like asthma, high and low blood pressure, cardiovascular disease. This means COVID-19 may take many more of their members if it is not controlled or eradicated. And if not COVID-19, they are at risk of dying from something else. There is urgent need to address underlying health conditions of Pentecostal church members in this country, particularly in the black churches.
Divine providence: One respondent says: the Pandemic storm, COVID-19, has been allowed by God [John 3: 27] to shake the whole world, providing an opportunity to review and re-evaluate our personal relationship with God. It has exposed the wide gap between poor and rich in society; the fragility of national economies and the need to preach and practise love, sharing, giving and caring.
Overload: In smaller, less organised organisations, the weight of responding to personal needs has tended to fall on a few, particularly the leader, making pastoral care difficult. Some pastors are busier than ever with helping, counselling and funerals, including of people not previously known to them.
Anger: There is anger too, aimed at perceived government shortcomings (e.g. lack of PPEs and disproportionate BAME infections and deaths) and restrictions (e.g. unable to visit sick, dying and bereaved loved ones).
Liturgical/sacramental and other: Some Pentecostal and Charismatic churches that are more Eucharistic will miss the gathered church more than those for whom the sacraments are taken only periodically.
Human touch: There is a real fear that a technology-reliant society may lose the human touch. The importance of touch must not be overlooked. A lack of physical human interaction will be a dangerous thing.
Social distancing: Not everybody seems to be practicing social distancing as required, sometimes due to cultural norms including crowded living spaces. And post COVID-19, some will have difficulty due to use of small halls for their church gatherings. Significant forward planning will be needed concerning the use of spaces for worship, and some may need to be abandoned altogether.
Needy: Some are discovering unknown neediness among congregants and in the community, for whom support is being organised through special arrangements and through charities like foodbank operations. Some are also discovering heightened needs abroad, especially in Africa, and are organising support by working with local projects there. Some are increasing their personal and organisational contributions to assist.
Struggles: There are stories too of churches struggling; some having lost leaders and members; others facing lost income.
Class: Generally, middle class, professional churches – whether in towns and villages or in urban areas – have found migration from physical to online gatherings easier to do.
National online services: “Why didn’t we do this before?” some are asking, since commencing weekly national broadcasts to their constituencies.
Justice: Professor Robert Beckford’s podcast ‘Better must come! Black Pentecostals, the pandemic and the future of Christianity’, has been mentioned as a helpful pointer to future socio-economic and political awareness by the church. It calls for awakening a voice in the community in terms of inequality. Maybe some have become too comfortable and disengaged from harsh realities of life for many. Underlying health issues, for example, may point to social justice issues. How did we fall asleep here? Why weren’t we concerned? Why are we so quiet? We need to repent of our comfort.
Offerings: Churches expect to take a significant hit from not meeting physically, since some members give only when they attend, and may not have bank accounts so cannot do online banking. Others have long encouraged online giving, but these disparities tend to follow class and professional lines. Overwhelmingly, reports suggest some people are responding to the lockdown by increasing their giving, which some leaders describe as how Pentecostals and Charismatics behave in faithful adherence to their teachings on tithing and giving. There are also reports of some cancelling standing order instructions to their banks since April, as layoffs and job losses occur. Streaming does not generate funds, said one, but some include tithing and giving sections in their streaming services, with clear online banking instructions.
National vs local financial needs: As resources tighten, some local churches are servicing their needs first before considering financial support for their national centres, such as headquarters surcharges. This is causing shortages for some central administrations.
Cancellations: The forced cancellations of regular and special events are a major problem, not least because they are significant features in the lives of some religious communities, and their cancellation a big blow to communal life. An example is a big summer event that usually attracts 5,000. Not everything is adaptable for online facilities, though some have been forced to adapt. Many are being cancelled or postponed until further notice, with significant financial implications. These are being dealt with one step at a time, for example, cancelling up to July/August 2020 in the hope of normal services returning from the autumn, yet aware that this uncertainty may stretch into 2021
Use of digital technology: Some churches, prior to the onset of COVID-19, were merely tinkering with digital technology. This has had to give way to serious application, and quickly. Larger churches with greater expertise and resources, including more young people and professionals, appear better placed to withstand the pandemic and public worship lockdown.
Reliance on technology: Some are concerned about reliance on technology to deliver regular services and stay in touch with each other, without the ability for physical attendance. Chatroom authentication and verification are concerns for private and personal conversations and some church business. There is ‘Zoom overload’ and occasional systems failures.
COVID-19 – a blessing in disguise: Some feel they have handled COVID-19 very well and that going online with audio/video conferences, regular services and other activities is a blessing in disguise, as they now reach a much wider audience, within and beyond their regulars. What seemed terrible has turned into something useful. COVID-19 has challenged and enlightened us, awakening us to new opportunities, and new people, and we are not confined in one place. Out of evil has come good.
Coping or flourishing: While some have flourished under COVID-19 lockdown, others are just managing to get by, coping the best they know how.
Not quite the same: For many, however good online is, it is just not quite as good as face to face. Some find it tiring, and a struggle to stay alert for long.
Buildings: Churches with buildings are facing tougher challenges with lockdown. Non-building ownership means congregations are already light of foot, more flexible, and used to meeting in small groups in homes, in campuses, etc. Concerns were raised about having to pay rent whilst unable to use rented premises.
Small congregations: There is fear that this crisis may sweep away some smaller local churches altogether when reopening comes, as members have become accustomed to not gathering or discovered other fellowships online.
Responding to lockdown: Generally, churches appear to be responding well, beyond expectations and even exceptionally well, according to some leaders. Churches are following the development of the pandemic and adhering broadly to government, NHS and Public Health England instructions and advice.
‘A gamechanger’: For some, COVID-19 is a gamechanger, after which society, including the church, will not be the same again. Some are keen to get back to normal, although this may well be significantly different from what was, with digital technology having become integrated into what is normal for churches. The future is likely to make accelerated use of IT, gathering physically and online simultaneously, and maximising electronic ways of fellowshipping, giving, praying, ministering and missionising. Hybridity is the future, it seems.
Organisational reshaping: Some find it necessary to diversify and strengthen their national, regional and local organisational structures and focus; pivoting to prioritise pastoral care support to increasing numbers of sick, grieving, and financially-needy parishioners. In some cases, this involves new appointments and reassignments.
Community engagement: Some were delighted that their movement stepped up, connecting socially in their communities, building new relationship and initiatives, and making their social interaction more engaging and evangelistic.
Social action: Many churches have either initiated or expanded social care projects to support the vulnerable and needy, including becoming hubs for delivery of food to feed the hungry.
Maximising resources: Churches look to maximise existing and new resources to cope with COVID-19, and do not expect or seek special favours from government such as handouts, although some are utilising government financial provision. Believing God for provision, they depend upon the faithfulness of congregations, flexibility of structures, and deepening what is already in use.
Online use: While some churches, locally, regionally and nationally, took a little longer, most adapted to lockdown quickly and well, moving services and other meetings online. Some leaders felt their churches did some really good stuff. Some had been streaming before COVID-19, but enhanced their facilities after COVID-19. Enforced use of technology probably pushed churches forward several years from dilly dallying with it. Some have found that participation in online corporate worship, bible study, and other meetings has exceed the size of physical gatherings prior. There has been a proliferation in the uses of Zoom, Teams, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, et al for wide range of meetings and uses including services, chatrooms, trustees meetings, as notice boards, etc. Such uses have not been glitch-free!
Togetherness: Ability to gather online during COVID-19 lockdown brought a much needed sense of togetherness.
Digital evangelism: COVID-19 and lockdown may have provided a unique window of opportunity for online ministries and digital evangelism, reaching across local, national and global boundaries. Use of IT has provided a form of freedom, multiplying small groups and extending reach. There are examples of people responding to the gospel from around the world, as there are examples of families attending online services, where only one member is a regular church-goer.
Flexible engagement: Some who are engaging with church during lockdown are probably doing so because of flexibility of engagement. This has led to one church, usually with 60 in church, attracting 250-300 online. It is essential that this attractive flexibility is retained, probably mixing online and physical attendance. One church plans to send out a directive to that effect to all their local churches. The old norm has gone, welcome to the new norm. This calls for change, with deeper thinking, creative thinking and planning, new habits, and probably a new theology of place. Hybridity is a must going forward.
Old technology: A few have upped their use of the telephone for staying in touch, including for services using free conferencing facilities.
Maintaining momentum: People in diverse places near and far are being drawn in during online services and will need to be kept in touch with. Streaming services must continue.
Widening reach: Some signs of swelling local audiences, a global audience, greater mission, new programmes, and new and strengthened community partnerships, building on previous work in the community including with local councils.
Outward facing: COVID-19 and lockdown has forced church to look outward, since in caring for their gathered communities and broadcasting to them, church has almost inadvertently encountered others.
People on the inside: Some have people well placed within the system, such as chaplains, medics and administrators, who helping them follow developments.
Information: Agencies like CTE and others are assisting the flow of information and understanding what is happening. There is increasing use of the internet.
Pastoral care: While the need for pastoral care is increasing exponentially, the use of IT is increasing reach. This includes community helplines for prayer and support of the wider community, in addition to church members, as the COVID-19 trauma goes beyond church people. Pastoral care in several cases is now better organised and better structured, with regular contact being made with those in need and unable to get out.
New people: Some not previously in touch with church are now making contact, sometimes for help, necessitating new rota systems of volunteers helping to work with them.
Surprises: There’s been some remarkable surprises too, such as one national church community having no known fatalities, and an 88-year-old who contracted COVID-19 and recovered.
Opportunity: Operating remotely has been challenging for some, facing teething problems and requiring significantly new ways of presenting the gospel, such as being more concise (do we really need to preach for an hour when 15-20 minutes have proven effective?)
Leadership: Some have expressed real pride at the manner in which their leadership teams have responded to the crisis. In one case, describing as “having to build a plane while flying it”.
Training: There are reports of speedy setting up of training, equipping leaders to assess people’s physical, emotional and mental needs, and match them with the appropriate agency for help.
1.3 Future impact
A new thing: Isaiah 43:19 is appropriate, God is doing a new thing, making a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.
Slow return: The future can’t be fully assessed yet, but strong impressions are that COVID-19 and lockdown has changed things. Whatever “return to normal” means, it may be slow and drawn out. This necessitates urgent building and strengthening of digital platforms to provide prolonged services of virtual connection as the new norm – for the short and medium term, and maybe even the long term. In returning after lockdown, some things need to be left behind: not everything needs to be recovered, and churches need to ask: “what’s important? What’s worth doing”, assessing and reallocating; this is a turning point.
New approach: Using online services has meant, for some, going from holding one or two services per week to instead holding several, and reaching many more people, including those overseas. It has given us a new approach to services. Using new technologies is so much better and more efficient at reaching out to leaders, members, and to wider society. Some churches plan to replicate everything done physically, so it will be available online too, thereby creating a physical audience and an online audience, including hybrid uses.
Pastoral care: There has been greater use of telephone and WhatsApp for pastoral counselling and prayers. Where physical visit would have happened, virtual ways, lightly used or not considered before, have become more frequent. This approach needs to be taken into the future.
Gone for good: Some are sensing that a significant percentage of people and ways of operating won’t be coming back, including some staff and congregants.
Delayed grief: There will need to be significant investment in spiritual and psychological counselling services for bereaved individuals and whole families, including for widows, widowers, the motherless and fatherless, young and old. It is expected there will be significant need, post COVID-19, for face to face and online counselling, psychotherapy and pastoral care services in Pentecostal and Charismatic communities. One leader suggests the growing need for a Pentecostal theology of suffering and grief, for which new resources are emerging.
Hybridity: The physical and virtual must co-exist, with remote individuals and small groups aligned with gathered church. All services and resources available physically should also be available online.
Community engagement: Churches will be challenged to not to lose their increased community engagement, and to explore new possibilities to reach out beyond.
Loss: Deaths of significant personnel during COVID-19 will impact some churches afterwards, with loss of personnel and resources.
Celebrations and Commemorations: A significant number of celebrations and memorial services are being planned after COVID-19 lockdown, to provide an opportunity for closure.
Face to face: There is likely to be intense demand for face-to-face contact.
Discipling: Responders to the gospel message and those who have come into contact with churches online will need to be discipled even after emerging from COVID-19. Online discipleship programmes and services must be part of the future.
Online services: Post COVID-19, online services are here to stay; some feel the future may be online, and not only for services, but teaching, meetings, etc.
Keen to get back: Not all envisage a future primarily online, some hope to be able to return, changed, but similar, and are keen to get back to where they were, “in church”, i.e. congregations meeting in buildings.
2. Financial impact of COVID-19
Financial challenges: Most believe their church is taking big financial hits during the COVID-19 lockdown. Financially, it’s beginning to bite. Financial challenges may loom large for some, and some congregations and jobs may not recover.
Increase: Some have seen increase in online giving, including from new contacts, but are unsure if this is enough to offset losses from non-attendance and for some loss of income.
Innovation: Although, as one put it, online services do not bring in money, some are giving out bank details and instructions how to set up payments during online services.
Attendance and giving: The link between physically attending and giving is great in many churches. People bring their offerings/tithes to church, therefore non-attending means non-giving, mostly.
Loss of income: Lack of offering plate giving, cancelled online giving due to loss of personal income or fear of this, and loss of rental and sales income will leave some battling, having been hit very hard. For some the loss of big money-generating events will also hit hard.
Money jars: Some hope members are storing their tithes and offerings for when lockdown is lifted. Someone dropped off their envelope at church, according to one.
Furloughing: There appears to be a significant take up of the government scheme by churches. Generally furloughing is not thought appropriate for active clergy, but has been utilised for some staff.
Cost centres: Mortgages and rents, some very high, are now set against falling income.
Demography: Older black and white churches in villages or poorer urban centres are less likely to survive than younger, more professional black or white ones.
Strong faith: Some express strong faith that churches will survive, with one citing the God of Elijah and the raven. “Where God guides, God provides”.
Realignment: One felt that God is realigning the Charismatic movement, including its relationship with money. The church is about people, not money and material things.
Tech savvy: Tech savviness is linked to giving online, and where the average age of congregation members is over 50, they are likely to be less tech savvy and so less likely to use online banking.
Direction of travel: Every church needs to educate its members to use online banking and debit/credit cards. Evidence suggest there is a slow migration towards online banking, even among groups that are disinclined to use it.
High Impact: Some feel the impact of financial reduction may be so great that going forward organisational restructuring may be needed, including re-categorisation of churches, from fully operational congregations to mission point, micro churches, etc… where these plans exist they may be sped up by COVID-19.
Waivers: A few church headquarters have received some requests for fee waivers, in part or fully.
Uncertainty: Some are just uncertain how things are or will be after COVID-19; “the jury is out”, says one. Reductions are already evident in some areas, and treasurers are having to be very watchful, hopeful and prudent, considering contingency planning. Some are accelerating financial reviews.
Increase: There were also reports of clear increase in giving in the face of loss of employment, however there is wary expectation that negative factors may kick in later.
Sacrifices: While some smaller churches may struggle, there is evidence of personal and group sacrifices being made; larger helping smaller churches, helping those hit heavier to weather the temporary storm.
Contractual arrangement: Those with mortgages and rent to pay are having to carry those responsibilities, despite reduction or loss of their main income streams. One hopes for concessions after COVID-19, with non-use and payments are aligned.
Recession: Some are aware that a major recession may follow COVID-19 and wonder what additional impact this could have on churches, affecting both income and expenditure. Might further financial hardship necessitate government support and or streamlining?
How long? There are strong views that lockdown is damaging to churches financially, and were it to go on to the end 2020, serious and probably irreparable damage may be done to some churches’ finances, leading to pastors being laid off.
Creativity: There is growing awareness that churches will need to become more creative concerning income generation.
Hopeful: The overall impression is that although COVID-19 and the lockdown represents a big financial hit to churches, most will survive, a few may even flourish, and all will need to innovate.
3. The effects of conspiracy and apocalyptic theories linking COVID-19 to 5G technology, and a vaccine to the mark of the beast
Awareness: All leaders are aware of the existence of such theories, circulating mainly in the form of video and audio messages on social media. Responses from leaders are generally disapproving, ranging from intolerance to understanding, but seemingly never approving or supporting.
Missional: One sees them as presenting a missional opportunity. That is, they provide opportunities to address the Second Coming.
Convincing: Some church members find some of these tapes very convincing, and whilst not taken in completely, still do not have sufficient familiarity with the subjects to either refute or support their contents. A particularly convincing one some made people fear that if they did not accept the vaccine they would be breaking the law, and may be arrested and sent to jail.
Sympathy: Some expressed views that the level of intolerance towards aspects of conspiracy theories is too high and is counterproductive, as intolerance makes authorities appear totalitarian. All views should be freely expressed without fear, after all, some conspiracy theories in the past have turned out to be true. Authoritarianism fuels cynicism.
Agendas: Some proponents of these things, it is thought, have their own agendas to suck people in and then recruit them to their causes and exploit them financially. Some have bought into a politically-slanted conspiracy that they were unable to see through.
Fake news: There needs to be a way to fact check these things, as to whether they are fake or true. Concerns are expressed about the dangers of misleading people so that they become anti-vaccine, to the possible detriment of their health and wellbeing.
Broadcast: One leader had taken to radio to broadcast opposition to these theories and to highlight the danger they pose.
Believe: Some believe it is important Christians believe in prophecy with accountability, and that those purporting to be prophets should be held accountable for the signs and wonders, miracles, and end times messages etc, they practise. Too many unaccountable prophets and speculators.
A men’s thing: It appears that men seem much more susceptible than women to these speculations, and that they are rampant in some men’s groups and ministries.
Be still: Conspiracy theories tend to make people anxious, and is anti the peace of God. Christians should learn to be still, pray and not get caught up in countervailing theories with their misinformation, fearmongering and “fake vs fact”. These are anti-peace agencies in times of trouble. Don’t repeat what cannot be substantiated, remember the Millennium bug?
Dissenting voice: There was at least one dissenting voice, pointing to the possibility of greater credibility in some of these theories than is being allowed for. “People should watch out for the growing globalisation symbol ‘Made in China’, and the emergence of the dragon from east”, and the challenge posed to the church and world by capitalism and globalism.
Uncertainty: Some leaders cannot work out whether any of these are true or false, so leave well alone and inform their people to do the same. Until you can prove it factual or false, leave it alone: prove all things. You will know truth and truth will set you free.
Study: Some felt that believers should study Daniel and Revelations, and spend time in the scriptures to better understand end times perspectives.
Consensus: Generally, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, at least at leadership levels, have sought to supress these conspiracy theories during COVID-19, sometimes by ignoring and at other times by speaking out against them. Yet there is awareness that their members have some interest in these matters to varying degrees. By not giving these theories space, they hope they will not proliferate, and their members will apply critical thinking and check validity. One suggests people ask, “Is it biblical, is it factual, is it correct?”